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Triangle of Life


Since the 1990s, news reports, chain e-mails and cable television programs have been explaining and recommending around the world, the survival methodology known as the triangle of life. (Figure 1). This earthquake safety method mistakenly argues that during an earthquake people will only survive by placing themselves next to a large bulky object, and not by crawling under one. The aforementioned methodology was developed by Douglas Copp, a self-proclaimed rescue expert from Canada, and the Disaster Manager of the American Rescue Team International -ARTI- (a private company not affiliated with the U.S. Government or other agency.) According to Marla Petal, former Coordinator of International Program Development for Bogaziçi University, Kandilli Observatory and Earthquake Research Institute's Disaster Preparedness Education Program, Copp makes many outrageous claims for which there is no supporting research; statements like "Everyone who simply "ducks and covers" WHEN BUILDINGS COLLAPSE, is crushed to death -- Every time, without exception." Petal also makes reference to the foundation of Copp’s triangle of life; The "scientific survival test". The experiment consisted of collapsing a school and a house in Turkey with 20 mannequins inside to evaluate the effectiveness of their protocol. (Video 1).

Image 1. Scheme of the "Triangle of Life" concept by Douglas Copp.

Use of a hydraulic hammer to destroy the columns of the building in Turkey which the triangle of life theory relies on. Nowadays, even with all the controversy that exists regarding the triangle of life in the information sources, it has been a challenge to keep people from using this method as a first choice in case of an earthquake. Below we present our position along with other government agencies and true experts on the subject of earthquake security.

Opinion of the Puerto Rico Seismic Network

The Puerto Rico Seismic Network, Department of Geology of the University of Puerto Rico -Mayaguez, bases its opinion on observations and discussions with other agencies and experts in seismology and mitigation. The Seismic Network continues to recommend as a first option in Puerto Rico the "Drop, Cover and Hold" method as the safest measure of protection in the event of an earthquake (see Image 2).

(Image 2). "Drop, Cover and Hold", the safest mode of protection suggested and accepted by the USGS, American Red Cross, and FEMA. Photo taken by RSPR.

Expert Opinion

Profesor Martínez Cruzado, UPRM

El Dr. José A. Martínez Cruzado, Professor of the Department of Civil Engineering and Director of the Strong Movement Program at the Mayagüez University Campus, made the following contribution to the safest method by protect himself in the event of an earthquake and including his point of departure. Here are his views regarding the "Triangle of Life":

“Crouching under a strong piece of furniture, say a desk, metal table or good wood and holding the legs of the furniture is an unsurpassed practice, because it not only prevents the roof of the structure from falling on top (assuming that the furniture is strong enough to support the ceiling) but it covers you from heavy falling objects such as bookshelves or the objects in them, ceilings, lamps, etc. Locating yourself next to the strong piece of furniture can prevent the ceiling from falling over you but it does not prevent other furniture or heavy objects from falling on you.”

“Dr. Martínez Cruzado also states: "The developers of the triangle of life argue that if the roof collapses, it will fall on you, which is true. But likewise, if you are next to the furniture and the roof collapses, it will fall on you as well and the difference is practically null.“

“On the other hand, people cannot be placed under appliances such as refrigerators, washers and dryers and it may be difficult to get under a bed. In these cases, where there is an absence of a strong piece of furniture in which to shelter (such as a desk or table), then it is preferable to stand next to the washer, dryer or bed (in that order) using the concept of the triangle of life. In the particular case of refrigerators, I have seen a roof being resisted by a refrigerator (earthquake in El Salvador, October 10, 1986). However, it should be fixed to the wall since it tends to be an unstable appliance. If used as described by the triangle of life the person could be buried under the refrigerator.

“In conclusion, it is best to identify strong furniture in the home under which people can shelter during a telluric movement and practice squatting under them and holding on. In the absence of this possibility, using the concept of the triangle of life would be useful with appliances such as a washing machines, dryers or beds. Other possibilities could be dishwashers or freezers, which are less common in our residences." explained Dr. Martínez Cruzado.”

Photographs taken by Dr. José A. Martínez Cruzado.

Pictures taken at a school after an earthquake in Cariaco, Venezuela. The Cariaco earthquake occurred on July 9, 1997, with a depth of 20 km and a magnitude of 6.8. In the first picture you can see that the area under the desk is safer than the area around it. In the bottom photo, a top floor collapsed and the ceiling was stopped by desks. The area under the desks remained intact and free of debris.

United States Geological Survey, USGS

The "Triangle of Life" is a misguided idea about the best location a person should try occupying during an earthquake. It is based on observations of an earthquake in Turkey, but the idea doesn't apply to buildings constructed within the United States.

Drop, cover, and hold under a table or desk is still the best recommendation, according to the American Red Cross.

American Red Cross

The claims made by Mr. Copp of ARTI, Inc., do not seem to distinguish that the recommendation to "drop, cover, and hold on!" is a recommendation based on U.S. Building Codes and construction standards. Much research in the United States has confirmed that "Drop, Cover, and Hold On!" has saved lives in the United States. Engineering researchers have demonstrated that very few buildings collapse or "pancake" in the U.S. as they might do in other countries. Using a web site to show only a single picture of a U.S. building with a partial collapse after a major quake in an area with thousands of buildings, that in addition, did not collapse during the same quake it states, is inappropriate and misleading.
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Earthquake Country Alliance

(Coordinators of the Great California Shakeout)

DO NOT follow the "triangle of life": In recent years, an e-mail has been circulating advice that describes an alternative to the long-established "Drop, Cover, and Hold On". The so-called "triangle of life" and some of the other actions recommended in the e-mail are potentially life threatening, and the credibility of the source of these recommendations has been broadly questioned (see links at right).

The "triangle of life" advice (always get next to a table rather than underneath it) is based on several wrong assumptions:

  • buildings always collapse in earthquakes (wrong- especially in developed nations, and flat "pancake" collapse is rare anywhere);
  • when buildings collapse they always crush all furniture inside (wrong- people DO survive under furniture or other shelters);
  • people can always anticipate how their building might collapse and anticipate the location of survivable void spaces (wrong- the direction of shaking and unique structural aspects of the building make this nearly impossible); and
  • during strong shaking, people can move to a desired location (wrong- strong shaking can make moving very difficult and dangerous).

Other recommendations in the "triangle of life" e-mail are based on wrong and very hazardous assumptions. For example, the recommendation to get out of your car during an earthquake and lie down next to it, assumes that there is always an elevated freeway above you that will fall and crush your car. Of course, there are very few elevated freeways, and lying next to your car is very dangerous because the car can move and crush you, and other drivers may not see you on the ground!
See the full article here